It may seem quixotic to approach the 20th century as a time when sacred art flourished, but the veteran music critic Robert R. Reilly focuses on “the other” 20th century, the one not dominated by Schoenberg’s liberation of the dissonance. There is an enormous fund of magnificent music outside the orbit of atonality and the 12-tone system, and at the core of this book is Reilly’s coverage of 65 tonal composers—or perhaps it’s better to tag them as non-atonal composers—from John Adams to Mieczyslaw Weinberg. For each of them Reilly offers astute recommendations of the best, most representative recordings of important works. This represents a labor of love, not to mention an enormous task of critical judgment. On that basis alone, every Fanfare reader now has an invaluable resource for exploration into new territory.
The appearance of the second, expanded edition of Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty (taking its title from Wordsworth’s poem, “Surprised by Joy”) finds the resurgence of tonal music to be even stronger than when the book first appeared in 2002. To be anti-Schoenberg by now is too dull an axe to grind, and it’s to Reilly’s credit that he has a positive message. He takes his cue from Stravinsky, who once proclaimed, “The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellowman and with the Supreme Being.” In a concise opening chapter, “Is Music Sacred?”, we are given a historical survey, beginning with the ancient Greeks, of the metaphysical meaning of music. Because Western civilization was founded upon religion, or at least a belief in a higher, idealized reality, there is no difficulty asserting that Bach’s Soli Deo Gloria, echoed by Handel and Haydn, among countless others, is the cornerstone of Western classical music.
Therefore, when the serial catastrophes of the 20th century, from World War I though the Stalin purges, the Holocaust and World War II, coincided with Schoenberg’s serial system for composing music, Reilly matches an entire culture’s loss of faith with the collapse of tonality. If he was a Manichean, Reilly’s central idea would place moral judgments, or at least a sharp divide in values, on what Schoenberg hath wrought. But in reality the author has a broad sympathy for the existential struggles that composers underwent—after all, besides being artists, composers are people, enmeshed in the same gears of history as everyone else. Surprised by Beauty is at its most moving when delving into biography, and Reilly’s telling comment on Frank Bridge’s turn to a harsher, bitter idiom after World War I could be applied to many other composers: “I have always wondered what impelled composers in this direction. One inadequate explanation is the search for new resources. This new language for Bridge, however, seems both to express a deep hurt, whatever its source, and to hide it.”
Couldn’t the same be said for Shostakovich and Britten? If we probed beneath the surface of Barber’s Dover Beach or Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, wouldn’t the wounds of history merge into personal woundedness? Surprised by Beauty is suffused with Reilly’s inquiry into this riddle, which is the larger context of how music comes about. I especially direct you to the interviews that form the last part of the book, where we get first-hand accounts from George Rochberg about his conversion to atonality and the reversal of that conversion (which made him a target of attack at the post-war height of Schoenbergian dogma). Rochberg’s story contrasts with the explicit spiritual visions described by the recently deceased Einojuhani Rautavaara in his interview, who dreamed of angels and wasn’t so sure they weren’t real angels.
Dreaming of angels is a long way from Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which was left unfinished as much out of spiritual abandonment as musical frustration. Reilly’s humane, knowing advocacy of contemporary tonal music and its forebears outside the Second Viennese School makes Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise seem too party line and too uncharitable. The official 20th century in music culminated in a realization John Adams had in college, that the death of tonality was the equivalent of Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead. The “other” 20th century survived untold horrors while keeping the faith, one way or another. Anyone intrigued by this angle on cultural history will be fascinated by Reilly’s well written, eminently useful book.